Dictate Your Story – An Unconventional Method of Completing A First Draft

13 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh


Each of us has a personal writing style when it comes to getting that first, rough draft down on paper. Some writers type rapidly and let their words pour onto the page in a stream of consciousness. These writers test their ideas easily, and tend to complete NaNoWriMo in two weeks or less. These writers are confident in their ability to revise, and aren’t afraid to put bad writing on paper in the quest to get that all important first draft down.

Alas, I am not one of these writers.

I am one of those other writers. The kind that types a sentence, reads it over, revises it, reads it again, deletes it, and starts the whole process over again. My ideas go down on paper slowly. I agonize over word choice, even when writing a scene I know will likely be cut when I revise. I go back and re-read constantly, interrupting the flow of my thoughts.

Maybe my first draft will need less revision because of my edit-while-I-write style. Maybe. But first I have to finish it. And truthfully, that first draft takes me a very long time.

Frustrated with my stagnating word count, I recently took a radical step to reduce my self-editing. I forced myself to dictate my first draft into a hand-held digital recorder.

Since beginning this experiment about a week ago, two things have happened. First, my writing has become much more rough and ugly. Second, my daily word count has more than tripled.

Both of these results are exactly what I needed. Yes, this first draft is full of messy transitions, horrible prose, and cringe-worthy dialogue, but isn’t that what a first draft is meant to be? This draft isn’t the book that will one day sit on a bookstore shelf. This draft is the idea that will be polished into that book. And at this rate, I’ll be polishing before I know it.

If you’re having difficulty letting go and just getting that rough draft down, consider dictating your story. Here are some tips that will help you get started:

• Don’t play back your dictation until you’re ready to transcribe. Don’t delete anything you say or go back and revise. I don’t even have headphones plugged into my recorder while I’m dictating. After all, the idea is to turn off the self editor while you draft.

•Don’t be afraid to sound silly. Don’t worry if you start every sentence with the words, “And then,” or if you repeat the same pronoun ten times in a paragraph. You’re going to revise later. Just talk. Tell your story. You can work on finding the right words later.

• Whatever you do, don’t give in to the urge to edit while you transcribe. This can be extremely tempting, but it results in a loss of all the benefits that dictating is supposed to provide. It also takes too much time. I tried editing my words as I transcribed one night, and I didn’t get the day’s entire recording down on paper. Then the next day, I was confused about where I’d left off. Dictation allows you to cover a lot of ground in your story quickly. Transcribe just as quickly, or you’ll get bogged down.

• Ignore your voice. Don’t worry about your annoying accent or the nasally way you pronounce your vowels. You can work on your diction another time. Right now you’re writing the first draft of your novel.

• Have an idea of what happens in a scene before you start. You don’t have to have the entire book outlined, but you should know what action you need to describe when you press record. For me, it works best if I watch the scene in my head like a movie, and then dictate the action the way it just played out in my mind.

• Have fun. Do different voices for each character. Laugh when you catch yourself using the word “suddenly” for the third time in a scene. Realize that rough drafts are called “rough” for a reason.

• Let yourself write some horrible prose.

• Trust your ability to revise.

Think dictating might be for you? Tried it before? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.


33 Responses to “Dictate Your Story – An Unconventional Method of Completing A First Draft”

  1. Taryn June 13, 2011 at 12:09 AM #

    I dictate when I’m driving. It’s probably a bad habit, but it actually is super useful and not as dangerous as it sounds. One thing to note is that it’s easiest to dictate-draft in first person, since that’s more stream of consciousness. I still prefer typing, but dictating has its uses–mostly during driving 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 7:41 PM #

      Hi Taryn! I dictate while driving too. It makes my long commute pass more quickly! 🙂

  2. sparklinga June 13, 2011 at 12:48 AM #

    This sounds like a great idea! I’m definitely going to try it. So many of my ideas come in the form little bits of narration, anyway 🙂 Thanks for the tips! 😀

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 7:42 PM #

      That’s how my ideas come too. I swear I need a recorder I can take into the shower! 🙂

  3. Jules Wood June 13, 2011 at 2:39 AM #

    Thanks for the insight, Taryn – I thought perhaps first-person would be too strange to dictate. I’ll take heart now. 🙂

    Julie – thanks for this post! Even if dictating doesn’t end up being right for me, it helped a lot to hear your encouragement to write a ROUGH rough draft and then fix it later. I, too, am crippled by that inner-editor!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 7:44 PM #

      Hi Jules! Yes, that inner editor is so persistent! I think getting that ROUGH rough draft down is so difficult because you have to allow yourself to write poorly. UGH! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  4. Jessica Lewenda June 13, 2011 at 4:00 AM #

    I find that when I try to get to sleep, I start narrating the story to myself in my head, and it’s awesome, but I’m always too slow to write them down and lose the train of thought. I’ve decided to keep my phone open on its inbuilt recording program each night, so if I ever start absentmindedly narrating to myself, all I have to do is reach over and press record. It’s a great plan, and works fantastically.
    Though, I still prefer to type my work as I go.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 7:45 PM #

      I love your idea to keep the recorder next to the bed! I’ll definitely try that. Thanks!

  5. Bee June 13, 2011 at 5:00 AM #

    I am extremely particular about what I’m writing. Even in the first draft everything has to be perfect, which is what makes me a very slow writer. But this dictating idea sounds insanely cool. I’m gonna try it and then I’ll come back and tell you if/how it worked.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 7:49 PM #

      Hi Bee! I’m glad you’re going to give it a try. Good luck! I think you’ll find it’s easier to move along in the face of “bad narrating” rather than what you perceive to be “bad writing.” Please do let me know how it goes. 🙂

  6. Diyana Wan June 13, 2011 at 6:31 AM #

    I’ve actually been toying with the idea of recording my narration!

    I think this post has given me the nudge I needed, so it’s a date with me and my recorder tonight! Thanks Julie!!

    Jessica, your method sounds awesome, btw 😀

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 7:50 PM #

      Hi Diyana! Good luck testing this out. Don’t be too hard on yourself as you get started, and please let me know how it goes. 🙂

  7. Carradee June 13, 2011 at 8:06 AM #

    I’ve tried dictating, like when I was driving to my old day job. (My mp3 player has a fantastic mic.)

    Doesn’t work for me. Audio and I don’t get along very well. Even vlogs and video messages annoy me; I’d rather read a message than watch or listen some face talk in a video.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 7:52 PM #

      I agree that audio and video can be frustrating sometimes. Certainly one method doesn’t work for everyone. 🙂 I hope you’ve found the best method for you.

  8. Maya June 13, 2011 at 9:33 AM #

    I never thought of dictating my story, but it looks like an excellent idea. I self-edit the whole way through so three hours writing makes for one measly paragraph. I edit my IMs, texts, emails and comments to posts like this. It’s beyond aggravating. Getting the inner-editor to shut up is my toughest job when I write, and this just might solve my problem. Thank you. 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 7:56 PM #

      Hi Maya! You and I are so similar. I think that obsessive self-editing comes from not letting yourself write bad writing. But you may be more tolerant of bad narrating! 🙂 Just remind yourself that you’re not really “writing” this draft, and that the real writing starts when you go back to revise. Good luck!

  9. Susan June 13, 2011 at 9:42 AM #

    Wow…what a cool idea… I’ve done this some–or rather, I’ve dictated ideas, but never whole scenes. I may have to give this a try because I’m stuck on a few scenes right now, and who knows? Maybe dictation is the change my Muse needs to get that story out!

    Thanks, Julie! Really cool post!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 6:58 PM #

      Hi Susan! I think you will find dictating gives you a whole different feel for your story than typing. I hope it inspires your muse! 🙂

  10. kate June 13, 2011 at 5:35 PM #

    what kind of recorder do you use? i’ve toyed with the idea, because i *majorly* self-edit and can’t seem to make myself not do so, but then i get kind of overwhelmed by the variety of digital recorders.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 13, 2011 at 6:56 PM #

      Hi Kate! I’m kind of at an unfair advantage here – my hubby is a musician, so I use his Edirol R-09, which retails for over $250. It’s great, but it has a lot of extras I don’t need. What I would recommend when looking is to find one that is easy to operate with one hand (you may want to try to drive while using it 😉 ) and to get one that lets you record to an SD card. Other than that, a built-in mic and a headphone jack are all that you really need. Great sound quality/clarity is nice, but much less important for dictation than with music. Hope that help! 🙂

  11. Safferina June 13, 2011 at 9:48 PM #

    This is one of the exact problems I have!!
    I’m trying to churn out that first draft right now. But I keep returning to the beginning, trying to make it right.
    Somewhat of a perfectionist I guess. My writing has become stagnant as well. I really wished I was one of those writers that can just churn out the first draft with ease and revise later.
    But thanks for your post! Its inspiring.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 14, 2011 at 6:23 AM #

      Hi! Thanks for your comment; I think returning to the beginning and polishing is a compulsion a lot of writers share. It could explain why agents complain that many manuscripts they read have a great opening and then quickly fade. Best of luck in getting to the end of that “rough” draft.

  12. Sammy Bina June 13, 2011 at 10:26 PM #

    Julie, this is such a cool idea! Honestly, I’d never even thought about it before. But I might have to give it a go now. I’ve got three or four scenes in SILENCE that are literally “*FINISH THIS LATER WTF THIS SUCKS RIGHT NOW*” so maybe this would be the kick I need!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 14, 2011 at 6:20 AM #

      Hey Sammy! I hope you give dictating a try! Let me know how it goes. (I have those “fix this later” placeholders in my draft, too. 🙂 )

  13. Myra June 15, 2011 at 11:36 PM #

    Julie, this is absolutely brilliant! The part about the annoying voice made me smile, since I record my voice and listen to it all the time. Only, I don’t do it for novel writing; I do it for studying. Instead of just rereading the cue cards I prepare for my tests/exams, I usually just dictate to a camera and play it back until everything is memorised. It’s wonderful for memorisation–I’m happy to say I’ve gotten As as a results–but I never thought about writing a novel this way! I must try it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 16, 2011 at 11:03 AM #

      Hey Myra! Wow, that’s a great studying technique. So yes, you would definitely be used to your voice by now LOL. And I think getting to know your own voice is a side benefit of this. I feel like I’m improving my speech while writing my novel. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  14. AC October 22, 2011 at 2:35 AM #

    I first heard about Dragon NaturallySpeaking in 2000 and couldn’t believe it. For those with carpal tunnel syndrome, not actually, but who don’t want to type endlessly, it’s a revelation. Yes, I have used Dragon dictation in the car except I usually dictate onto my laptop and I’m horrified about getting a ticket. Another unconventional use I have for Dragon dictation is when I’m doing the dishes and once or twice picking up the yard.

    • erikilla rajesh November 24, 2011 at 1:49 PM #

      hi am an upcoming student in story narration, thanks for your voluble ideas,am trying them and i see a lot of fun when am doing…

  15. Amy June 16, 2012 at 11:14 AM #

    Thank you for this great article. I’ve been thinking about trying Dragon but I just know it will drive me crazy trying to get right and this isn’t just to type some articles, I have a novel to write! I wanted to ask which dictation devise specifically do you use? It will mostly be for home use and not on the go.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 16, 2012 at 11:29 AM #

      Hi Amy! Glad you liked this post! I have never tried Dragon; some people love it though!
      I’m kind of at an unfair advantage when it comes to the type of recorder I use – my hubby is a musician, so I use his Edirol R-09. It retailed for a few hundred dollars when it was new. What’s great about it is I can handle all the controls with one hand, and it’s small enough to go anywhere in my purse. 🙂 Good luck with your book!

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  17. Dan November 10, 2014 at 8:00 PM #

    I just ordered a mic for my old iPod touch that I plan to use for narration. I get the best flow going in my head when taking my daily hike with my dog. Figure I might as well try narration. I’ll be using Dragon Dictate on a Mac to transcribe it. You just save your audio to a file, upload it to the transcribe tool in Dragon, and it transcribes everything in a matter of minutes. No need to type out your first draft at all! Can’t wait to get started…


  1. Dictate All Day - June 17, 2011

    […] Dictate Your Story – An Unconventional Method of Completing A … Yes, this first draft is full of messy transitions, horrible prose, and cringe-worthy dialogue, but isn't that what a first draft is meant to be? This draft isn't the book that will one day sit on a bookstore shelf. […]

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